What's It All About, Alfred?
'All right,' I said as we came out of the cinema, 'you wanted this job as Comparison Wrangler, you got it.'
'Great,' he said.
'But now I'm expecting good stuff from you every time. Describing Beasts of the Southern Wild as Waterworld meets City of God and Silver Linings Playbook as One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest meets Dirty Dancing set the bar pretty high, but one duff comparison and you're back to being the column's Motorsport and Latin America Correspondent.'
'Right, I understand.'
'Okay then – what did you make of that film?'
My newly-installed Comparison Wrangler thought for a moment. 'The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns.'
It took me a moment to digest that. 'Your job is safe,' I eventually said.
The Iron Lady meets Batman Returns' – I don't know about you, but that's a pitch for a film I'd really like to see. Whether it's actually a fair description of Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock is another matter, for while this movie has its fair share of spectral visitations and performers in heavy prosthetics (which I eventually realised was what the Wrangler was on about), there is a lot of other stuff going on here, most of it highly entertaining.
The vast majority of this film is set in the late 1950s and concerns one of the most interesting periods in the life of the legendary film director, Alfred Hitchcock. The famously corpulent artist is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in heavy prosthetics that do indeed give him a striking resemblance to Toby Jones, while his long-suffering wife Alma is played by Helen Mirren. Following the success of the slick and glitzy thriller North by Northwest, Hitch finds himself casting fruitlessly about for a new project' – the studio just wants him to do more of the same, but he feels the urge to do something completely new, unorthodox, and shocking. In the end he settles on a slightly pulpy horror novel by Robert Bloch, based on the true story of the notorious serial killer Ed Gein. The book is called Psycho.
Naturally, the studio, the censor's office and some of those around Hitchcock are dubious about the new project' – to the point where he and his wife take the decision to finance it themselves, remortgaging their home to do so. However, as production gets underway, the great director finds himself somewhat distracted from his work' – not just by his usual fixation on young blonde starlets, but by darker and more peculiar shadows' – and, above all, the suspicion that his wife's loyalty to him is not as perfect as he has always suspected it to be.
I enjoyed this movie a lot, rather more than I honestly expected to, but this doesn't really change the fact that it is a rather peculiar piece of work. Rather appropriately, it has a bit of a multiple personality problem, changing its tone and focus frequently throughout its length. It opens with a scene in which Gein (played by Michael Wincott) himself is seen committing the first of his murders, which suddenly turns comic as Hitchcock appears in frame and starts addressing the audience directly, in the style of one of the introductions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The idea that this is going to be a knowing piece of metafiction with blackly comic overtones does not last long, as the next section of the film is played straight' – until there's another fantasy sequence featuring Gein. The film slides back and forth like this' – in some places it's a weird phantasmagorical comedy-drama, in others a serious examination of the personalities and relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville, in yet more it's a jolly look at the making of Psycho (James Darcy plays Anthony Perkins, Scarlett Johanssen gives us a perky Janet Leigh, and Jessica Biel is Vera Miles).
Now, it doesn't actually do any of these things badly – but the frequent shifting between them does leave one never quite sure how to react. The material with Hitchcock hanging out with Gein's phantom is sometimes funny, sometimes creepy, sometimes just peculiar, but it's the least prominent part of the film. All the serious acting is going on in the plotline about Hitchcock's personal issues and his relationship with his wife. I have to say that, despite the best efforts of the make-up people, Anthony Hopkins simply doesn't look a huge amount like Hitchcock, and his accent isn't quite there either. If this is a problem, it's tempting to stick some of the blame on Hitch himself, for making himself such an iconic figure at the time. Hopkins isn't actually bad, but Mirren is certainly much better, even though hers is the less juicy part.
This is actually a rather sympathetic depiction of Hitchcock, on the whole – his well-publicised tendencies with respect to his leading ladies are acknowledged, and there's a scene where he attempts to spy on Vera Miles changing, but on the whole the tone is so jovial and celebratory that one comes away a little bemused at just how well he comes off.
One senses that the heart of the film is really only in the behind-the-scenes stuff on Psycho. Many of the famous anecdotes about the making of the film are brought to the screen' – although the allegation that Hitchcock didn't actually direct the shower scene himself is not aired' – and even people very familiar with the movie may learn some new stuff; I certainly did. Considering that Hitchcock doesn't contain a single frame of the original movie, and only uses certain very limited elements of the soundtrack, it all feels surprisingly authentic (there's a nice deadpan gag where Hitchcock assures the censor that the film will be much less questionable with Bernard Herrman's 'beautiful, lyrical' music added to it). The best moment of the film comes when Hitchcock, listening to an audience's reaction to the film, appears to orchestrate their response like a conductor. If nothing else Hitchcock reminded me of what a toweringly brilliant movie Psycho is.
This is an engaging and very enjoyable film, but I do sort of wonder what the point of it is' – it's not as if Alfred Hitchcock is some forgotten genius, and Psycho an obscure, unlauded film. People started openly ripping off Hitchcock even while he was still alive, and Psycho is one of the founding texts of the modern horror movie. Hitchcock is ultimately rather superfluous and doesn't tell us anything especially new' – but as redundant movies go, it's highly agreeable.